Moral order, moralizing, and making it a bad day (the American way)

In my earlier post about some of my experiences at the 2010 meetings of the American Anthropological Association, I talked about the elevators with a parenthesis about students from our programs at Teachers College.  I am now opening the parenthesis to develop something that came to me when listening to the paper by Linda Lin.  Right after listening to her paper, I introduced the session Gus Andrews and Sarah Wessler organized and that they titled “The dark side of legitimate peripheral participation.”  The continuity was striking.  Of course, I liked a title that evoked both Jean Lave and Darth Vader making it a bad day for a galaxy, far, far away (that is the galaxy right around the corner from Teachers College (Columbia University)–if not Teachers College itself.

Darth Vader is my addition, extra-vagantly.  Students have to be more sober and they were.  One cannot take lightly investigations into the ways through which cultures disable.  Andrews, Hung, Kabat, Wessler, wrote about “degradation ceremonies” some “successful” (Garfinkel 1956), some failed, some joking, some even possible restorative of a broader order.  The later is actually an optimistic, if not extra-vagant twist on the pessimism easily triggered by Garkinkel or Lave.  Children yell at each other and call each other names that are direct commentary on their status within the polity.  They can even yell at adults with authority over them, and call them name—all while playing video-games and making it a good day all around.  I have been fascinated by the relationship between play and culture and this is something we will have to pursue.

Linda Lin’s was the darkest of the papers I heard that morning.  She provided another instance of moments she has written about elsewhere (2007): moments in the life of the people in an institution dedicated to helping people talk about race and racism when they themselves do talk about race, and get into serious trouble.  Regularly, their own talk about racism escalates into conflict, hurt feelings, resignations from the institution.  As she showed, conflict while discussing race is extremely orderly given American categories and rhetorical or performative forms.  It is also so painful that one understands why race talk should be so rare.  Touching hot stoves and getting burned is so orderly a process that its consequences can be predicted.  Given this kind of orderliness, it is not surprising that we try not to touch hot stoves, and teach our children not to do so.  It is similarly understandable that I should not want to engage in race talk, and that I should find Lin’s work so daring.

In this paper, Linda Lin also stressed something else that is equally daring.  She argues that one central mechanism in the production of conflict and pain during planned and institutionalized race talk is the moralizing that is an integral part of this talk.  When such talk is indeed planned within an institution, it is generally introduced as something “we” should do because it is the good thing to do.  The introduction develops into how bad it is not to have such talk.  And so on.  Linda Lin, interestingly, was attempting to distinguish moralizing from what sociologists, from Durkheim to Garfinkel, have written as the moral implications of social ordering.  Social ordering produces morality, and thus (this actually is an empirical generalization) breaks in social orders produce calls to moral accountability.  These calls can then take the form of a moralizing that can itself lead to further and more serious breaches (in a process related to what Bateson called “schismogenesis”).

Linda Lin, building on my work with Ray McDermott, dares to write about “America” as a label for the conditions that, in our work, make bad days for people caught within the gravity of the galaxy (I am hereby trying a new metaphor to add gravity to the metaphors about networks and webs we have been using).  America can be fun.  American can be great.  But America, as a field for politics from the most global to the most local, also has a dark side.  And all the papers explored this dark side even if, at times, the darkness is only a temporary tension as the social orders of fun and games is re-established.

All this fits well with my insistence about ongoing practical awareness of social orderings (as against still too common cultural anthropological bromides about culture being shared and unconscious, and as against the usual uses of the concept of habitus).

[For further readings about all this, see “Culture as disability” (McDermott and Varenne 1995) and Successful failure (Varenne and McDermott 1998)]

On an education into elevators (62 years into a life in modernity)

Producing new cultural orders while riding elevators with redesigned operating methods

(Actually, I do not remember when I learned about elevators, or when I first operated one, so it may less than 62 years since I reached the point when I did not have to think about operational procedures—until last week)

One of the best experience of my visit to New Orleans for the annual anthropology meetings (except for wonderful papers by “my” students) occured each time I approached the elevators at my (Sheraton) hotel. On the first day, as I left the registration desk, located my elevator banked, rushed into an open elevator, turned around with hand raised to punch my floor …… I was stopped in my tracts: there were not buttons to push. Where the buttons would have been was a bolted cover. As the doors closed I made a panic exit and looked around. There, I saw a small sign (actually I noticed later that there was a large sign about “elevator upgrades” which I had ignored). It told me that operating the elevators was “as simple as 1, 2, 3″ (making me and, I believe, many others feel properly stupid). As Garfinkel told us, the problem with instructions is that there are to be instruction about the instructions. I had not gotten this instruction to look for instructions but now I had no choice. I did find the instruction and was told that, here and then, one had to punch one’s floor outside the elevator, listen to the voice telling us floor and elevator (“33, Car H”). It was not until my third or four trip that I noticed that a small panel up on the side of the door lit up to indicate the floors where the elevator would stop. Two days later all this had become routine: 1) punch your floor and listen to the instruction about the car to take; 2) locate this car and stand in front of it; 3) as the doors open check the side panel for confirmation and move confidently. I had learned!

However, telling this story as an autobiography of the movement from ignorance to knowledge, leaves asides all sorts of other performances involving many more people with whom I waited for and rode the Sheraton elevators. I was not the only one to have been jogged out of my assumptions about elevators and I found myself one of those who instructed other people, our temporary consociates, about these elevators when we suspected that they had not read the posted instructions and were just rushing into an open elevator without having entered their floor outside, or when we saw them with hand hovering over the bolted panel looking around for the buttons. By then people knew something was wrong and they took our instruction to exit the elevator and punch their floor.

But education, as I have been arguing is not only about learning, or even teaching. It is also about commenting, interpreting, placing the event into broader patterns. By the second or third day, if there were several persons in the elevator, it was quite common for impromptu conversations to start among people who did not know each other: “these are the worst elevators!” “I hate this hotel!” “How could they do this? What’s the point?”. And then there were the comments about the commenting: “Isn’t it interesting how the elevators makes us talk to each other.” And so, in the world of education we also have


commenting on instructions

commenting on comments about instruction

In this vein of commenting about commenting about commenting… let me expand on one of my favorite statement from Garfinkel: “Consider also that once you get into line persons will not therein question that you have rightfully gotten into line unless you start screwing around. Then you get instructed.” (2002: 257) This statement appears as another illustration of achieved orderliness and of the methods through which this orderliness is accomplished. But it does not directly address the cases when those who screw around with a simple task like using an elevator are engineers, backed by powerful corporations, and by unimpeachable discourses about efficiency and such (including energy efficiency, easily linked to discourses about saving the planet). Then, new conditions have been inscribed and “we,” the future members of temporary ad hoc “congregations” (in Garfinkel’s term) or of “polities of practice” (in my terms) must now make new orders. It may be that, in a few years, the Sheraton method to using elevators will have become so common as to hide its extra-vagance (Boon 1999). It will then be “as if” people were habituated into “their” culture (when in fact they are just putting up with someone else’s cultural production).

But these new orders will be required only as long as those who build the machineries of our lives (including the political, economic, classificatory, etc., machines) can maintain them against our own extra-vagance—unless of course they change them.

a call for exploring everyday science education

We must investigate carefully how people, in their everyday life, find out about the scientific research that is presented as requiring political decisions.

Today, I continue my experiments in drafting introductions to research proposals.  The text below was written at the suggestion of Professor Peter Coleman of Teachers College, who asked me to write a brief (“people are busy”) statement summarizing my interests to colleagues, mostly scientists in the environmental sciences, in the hope that some might be interested in collaborating.  I am developing here asides I have made about everyday science education in my recent work (2009, 2010).

So, and I quote:

How new scientific knowledge enters the public sphere is something we still know little about-systematically and scientifically. The issue is all the more pressing when this knowledge has immediate political implications-as most forms of scientific knowledge in the past two centuries has had. In physics (relativity theory, atomic bombs, nuclear power), medicine (in vitro fertilization, stem cell research), environmental science (global warming), etc., about all scientific developments have been translated out ofthe scientific polities within which they initially came to make sense, and into broader polities where they remain vigorously debated. Most importantly, as debates have evolved, scientific work has itself been affected. The limits on the use of stem cells, or the investigations into the e-mails of climate scientists, are but the most glaring of an ongoing systemic process of re-appropriation, some would say resistance, of science by non-science.

The issue is often presented as a struggle between the knowledgeable and the ignorant, and the solution as a matter of the knowledgeable teaching the ignorant through some kind of “educational” program–or perhaps just controlling the import of the obdurate ignorant through political marginalization. Such assumptions represent, at best, a naive understanding of educational processes and, at worst, a great danger for the future of scientific work as its authority over the production of knowledge for policy is eroded. Education, for all those who think most deeply about it, is never a simple matter of the transfer of information bits from one unit (generally modeled as an individual person) to another. But it is only recently that we had access to robust theoretical foundations for the systematic investigation of alternative models. This foundation has begun to produce preliminary empirical research illustrating the reality of collective educational processes that had remain relatively hidden to regular inquiry. These developments should allow us better to trace, and perhaps even simulate, what can happen when the temporary consensus of a polity on a topic (e.g., that the earth is warming and that this warming is the result of human industrial activity) is presented to other polities (national governments, local communities, families) as matter requiring action (carbon taxes, recycling regulations, changes in thermostat settings).

On the basis of this recent research, I am convinced that the overall process is best understood as a process of deliberations within and across polities, and thus as an interactional process leading to a temporary consensus about what to do next. I gloss this process as “education” and specify it as a set ofspeech acts (noticing, seeking, asking, instructing, convincing, trying out, evaluating, etc.) that always involve a multiplicity of people linked to each other in complex ways. In this perspective education is not a matter of transfer but a matter of recasting, or perhaps more exactly re-placing, what can appear as a bit of knowledge (or, more exactly again, knowledge with consequences since we are not talking here solely about a cognitive matter but a practical matter for future practices). In this perspective, a new scientific consensus about the world is a challenge to other forms of consensus and a trigger for new educative activities by the various groups caught in the challenge.

Much research is needed on all this.  I am interested in collaborating with others to explore these processes.  More information about the work I refer to is available at:

on designing new methods for needs assessment

how to design new methods for needs assessment and service delivery that takes into account the ongoing education people give each other about their needs, and about the services offered to them.

This blog will take a somewhat different tack as I try to think through how to fund the work of the still unapproved Center I inaugurated a year ago.  As I mentioned earlier, one of the difficulty of intellectual work that takes into account what we have taught ourselves about the properties of all work, is that every aspect of this work must take into account its multiples conditions.  Simply put, we must speak (write, perform, etc.) differently to different audiences without losing the core of what we are trying to say.  Some might consider this shaping of one’s statements as forms of dissimulation, selling out, if not hypocrisy or outright lying.  But we know, as Sacks put it, that “everyone must lie”–which, of course, is not to be taken as a moral statement but as a statement of the human condition, and thus of the intellectual condition as well, particularly when ones steps out of solipsitic ivory towers.

So, I was looking at the web site of the W. K. Foundation, and particularly at the list of the grants it has recently awarded.  None of the first 40 or 50 I looked at have anything to do with anthropological research, or indeed with research of any kind–at least in terms of their purpose statement.  Typical is a statement that states:

strengthen the capacity of low-income pregnant and parenting women to improve
their birth outcomes and optimize the health and development of their children by supporting a planning process to develop specific interventions, implementation strategies, and evaluation plans


educate providers about how to best address the physical and psychosocial needs
of overweight/obese children, adolescents, and their families and increase their access to current, culturally-sensitive, evidence-based prevention, treatment, and management modalities by …

I chose this one because Sarah’s professional experience might make her credible as the designer of programs aimed at “parenting women” or “providers [of services] to families.”  I suspect we might also find Kellogg funding programs relating to autism.  Our issue is whether we can fit our work under such a statement?

The problem is not simply that I, as potential Principal Investigator, do not have a credible professional experience in the design or delivery of services.  Some of us have this experience.  The issue is how to remain true to our sense that much of these programs are based on faulty understanding, and thus research, on the issues the programs are aimed at alleviating–and still claim that we could help.

So can we say that we are proposing something that will be based on a sounder understanding of the conditions people are facing?  Could we say something like:

“It is common sense that service delivery must be responsive to familial or community needs.  What is difficult in this statement concerns the assessment of these needs.  How do we, as expert outsiders, get to know these needs?  Census figures about the rate of a condition (e.g. obesity) look like a good place to start.  But they do not tell us much about the social and cultural settings that are likely involved in the rate.  Surveys, focus groups and other such techniques may offer a glimpse into the actual settings of the condition of concern, but, at their best, they only produce reports of what happens in the settings, reports often framed by questions imagined by the investigator.  Ethnographers have claimed that they can provide more ecologically valid accounts of life in the settings of context.  We agree with this but are aware of one further limitation.  Any account of the “culture” of a community or family is inadequate if it ends with a list of traits, customs, and procedures, that are then presented as an indefinitely long present.  Recognition that human beings are always involved in transforming their most local conditions, wily nilly often as the conditions around them change, must be a fundamental investigatory principle.  We need new methods for assessing community characteristics and needs, as well as the impact of a service on the people served as they are being served–particularly if it is successful enough to produce the kind of cultural change hoped for.

Our goal then is to use the setting up of a model [health] [autism] educational center in [TBA] founded in a new form of communal need assessment both before and during the first years of the center.  This assessment will be based on the now well-documented reality that people, everywhere, and on an ongoing fashion, face the uncertainty of their conditions, particularly when these are directly impacted by a major life event [such as XXX], by investigating, analyzing, discussing, deciding what is to be known and what is to be taught, and then develop the methods to move forwards–methods that can include services offered by expert outsiders, or resistance to these services.  In our words, people always educate themselves, and service delivery must bring out the work that the people do.  Identifying conditions is one step but is not sufficient when people keep transforming these conditions.  Finding the methods they use to do so is essential.”

I have drafted a longer draft of this elsewhere.

So, what is my phenomenon?

This is an initial attempt to state simply (I hope) where I am placing my expertise: “Education into matters of major life crises.” “Major life crises” becomes the index to phenomena that have the property of breaking the routine and, I postulate, triggering what I call “education” (figuring out constraints, possibilities, and constituting futures given conditions and bricolage). If ‘totemism’ revealed itself to hide a very general human process of constituting paradigmatic correlations among what Western classifiers had conceived as separate “domains,” then autism may reveal itself as just another case of the “world” (the body, ecology, social structure, symbolization, etc.) imposing itself on our consciousness and requiring a transformation in our ongoing practices.

One corollary of the systematic doubt about the epistemological status of any “it” for social science inquiry, is that it makes it hard to state simply what a project is “about.” There are at least two aspects to this corollary.  Both are matters of practice, but within different polities (communities).

I may return to the first of these polities.  For now, to those outside our immediate field of disciplinary practice, we say that our project is about the “it” of their concern.  Foundations, policy makers, informants, etc., can be told that we are studying “autism in Queens” or “adolescent health in Harlem.”  We are not dissembling when we say this, even as we proceed on the basis of the critique of the status of the phenomenon such statements transform into objects.  Actually, it is only because we proceed in term of the critique that we can actually contribute to our ethical/political responsibilities outside our own practice.

So, when we study ‘autism’ (as we say to those whom we thereby place outside our disciplinary polity), we start with any practices that are matter of factly relevant to some practices that are usually packaged as aspects of autism, but we do not limit ourselves to these, nor do we necessarily weigh practices the way they are usually weighed.

The preceding paragraphs are a summary of my previous two posts (On Following Indexes… , Recapturing Phenomena).  But neither addressed something that has become more salient as I have mentioned in various settings that I am directing research on “autism, health, and information technologies” as one project, or “settings for education in Harlem” (not to mention the dissertations I am sponsoring on indigeneity in Vancouver child welfare, women seminary in Iran, Bangladeshi in Detroit, political representation in Belfast, etc.).  How could all these matters be addressed together?  Throughout my career at Teachers College, I have greatly enjoyed working with students on what can also appear as a very miscellaneous multiplicity of topics.  But when I approach someone with a request for support, then I find myself challenged: What is my field of expertise?  “Anthropology” in most professional or policy setting is not much of an answer, or one that might lead to polite redirection to those who fund “anthropology.”  By grounding myself at Teachers College, I accept the responsibility to contribute to the understanding of issues of importance to the more encompassing of our polities (and not only national ones).  Which is this issue (some ‘it’)?  It is not easy to be convincing when I claim expertise about social processes of human everyday life even as I refute the reality of any of the ‘it’s around which expert authority is usually organized.

Trying to take this into account, here is part of the message I recently sent to the “Director of Sponsored Programs” at Teachers College.  I wrote:

my working group has received two small grants (one from the Provost Investment Fund, and one from Google) to explore aspects of informal education about matters of major life crises (autism, adolescent health, information technologies) when people have to figure out who has authority, expertise, resources, and then corral their understanding to organize their future.

(Note that I am making us a “working group” for TC purposes since the Center is not approved…) .

This is an initial attempt to state simply (I hope) where I am placing my expertise: “Education into matters of major life crises.”  “Major life crises” becomes the index to phenomena that have the property of breaking the routine and, I postulate, triggering what I call “education” (figuring out constraints, possibilities, and constituting futures given conditions and bricolage).  If ‘totemism’ revealed itself to hide a very general human process of constituting paradigmatic correlations among what Western classifiers had conceived as separate “domains,” then autism may reveal itself as just another case of the “world” (the body, ecology, social structure, symbolization, etc.) imposing itself on our consciousness and requiring a transformation in our ongoing practices.

In other words, for those to whom this will make sense, I am generalizing Garfinkel’s concern with disruptions, not only as a tool that reveal what people do to maintain an order, but also as the ongoing possibility that order will not be maintained.  We all work hard at driving down a highway so that we can leave it unscathed.  But accidents do occur.  What happens next?

recapturing phenomena

The first thing to notice is that Lévi-Strauss is embedding two arguments. The first argument starts with a postulate: that totemism (hysteria) is a historical product. Thus, understanding what happened to make it real, and then un-real, requires a diachronic account of the conversation (my word) within which it was first real, and then un-real. The second, embedded argument allows for the rest of the book: the conversation was about some “thing,” (phenomenon? experiences? practices?) that remains.

This is the second in a series of reflections about ethnographic methodology given theoretical critiques of the initial constructing of the ‘it” which we investigate. In the first, I mused about what to do when we come to doubt that this “it” might be a place (the Trobriand Islands, County Clare in Ireland). If we are not sure that there are places “there”, then where do we go? Geertz summarized this doubt, but then appeared to suggest that the solution was in substituting what might be most charitably labeled an ideal-type as the ‘object’—for example “colonialism.” But Lévi-Strauss had already obliquely shown the dangers involved in that step when he wrote about “totemism” (1963 [1962]) at a time when anthropologists had come to doubt whether totemism was any kind of “it.”

I remembered the book as I advised Jeff Schiffer in his struggles with “indigeneity.” Undoubtely, there are many people in Canada and elsewhere around the world who are quite sure this indigeneity is an “it” of some sort. And, to this extent, indigeneity is an “it” of precisely that sort: it is an object around which political conversations are organized, institutions as reconstituted, careers are made. But that sort of what I have called “cultural facts” are awkward matters to investigate. The question being: how do I know I am looking at what I am interested in investigating? Is this (a regulatory text about ways of properly referring to some people) and instance of that (indigeneity)?

This is the problem Lévi-Strauss addresses in the first two chapters of Totemism. He starts with a provocative sentence in the context of much that interests students in anthropology:

Totemism is like hysteria, in that once we are persuaded to doubt that it is possible arbitrarily to isolate certain phenomena and to group them together as diagnostic signs of an illness, or of an objective institution, the symptoms themselves vanish or appear refractory to any unifying interpretation. (1963 [1962]: 1)

Initially, students come with interests like “identity,” “nationalism,” “autism,” “indigeneity.” They immediately bump into the problem of “definition” and Max Weber is not much of a help. Lévi-Strauss might be more of a help but this is not quite obvious at first sight since he compares his topic to something that has been so discredited as an object that even the phenomenal symptoms appear to have vanished. Nationalism, autism, indigeneity have not been so discredited (yet?), but the method requires that we suspend belief.

If we do, suspecting that the verisimilitude of these objects is the product of what Lévi-Strauss calls “cultural conditions,” what do we do next? Following Lévi-Strauss’s argument could be a starting point.

The first thing to notice is that Lévi-Strauss is embedding two arguments. The first argument starts with a postulate: that totemism (hysteria) is a historical product so that understanding what happened to make it real, and then un-real, requires a diachronic account of the conversation (my word). The embedded argument that allows for the rest of the book is that the conversation was about something, that is about some phenomena, that remains.

The first chapter is, essentially, a review of the literature that destroyed (we would now say “deconstructed”) the idea that there was some institution that coalesced 1) a social element; 2) a psychological element; 3) a ritual element (Lévi-Strauss’s summary of Rivers 1963 [1962]: 8).

The second chapter is a reconstruction starting with a postulate: “certain phenomena, arbitrarily group and ill analyzed … [are] nevertheless worthy of interest (1963 [1962]: 15). The rest of the chapter is an introduction to what became known as a peculiar form of structural methodology which has proven to be altogether a dead end (at least to the extent that about no one in anthropology used it as Lévi-Strauss proposed it).

What remains is Lévi-Strauss’s insistence that there was some phenomenon some where, and that the ethnographic activities that inscribed this phenomenon in observations, field notes, and field reports, were not purely the product of a culturally produced hallucination as bad post-modernism sometimes made it appear. People have been seen associating animals with groups of people. Whether this association is “totemism” or not must not make us doubt our senses radically. But it must refocus our reporting. Sports team in the United States, like political parties, are often named after animals (Marlins, Tigers, Panthers, Lions, Eagles, Bears, etc., as well as donkeys or elephants), and much ritual behavior builds up around these identifications. Where these activities are totemism should not the issue anymore. The issue should be how these identification arise, how they are reconstituted in everyday practice, by whom.

In that perspective, Lévi-Strauss’s conclusion that “totems are good to think, not to eat” (1963 [1962]: 89) makes sense—though I would not put it that way unless we take “thinking” as it has been developed by Michael Cole and his followers as a social process of distributed conversation.

In this perspective, “autism,” like all labels for organizing mental properties, is a bunching of activities. And so is indigeneity, nationalism, learning and, of course, education.

[still more to come…]

On following indexes as ethnographic methodology

Ethnography, like most (all?) scientific methods, must initially proceed on the postulate that there is, over there, some “it” to write about.  All critiques of ethnography have succeeded in demonstrating that, for human phenomena at least, this postulate cannot stand.  Anthropologists, as Geertz put it, do not study villages, they study “in” villages (1973: 22).  The new question that has not been answered: what do they do when they arrive in a village, if they are not going to study “it”?  Geertz suggests they might study “colonial domination” but does not quite explain what that might be. I suspect Geertz would say this is an ideal-type (Weber 1949: 89-95). Parsons might say it is a “formal category.” In either case, the anthropologist is just as much as a loss as when Malinowski or Boas told her to record “everything.”

I venture to say that most anthropologists of the past half-century have, uncomfortably, proceeded “as if” there were some there there, and I have often proceeded in such a matter—or let students proceed as if they would find objects to write about.

We have to find a clear way of stating what one is to do in the absence of a postulated ‘it’.  Many have argued for what they call “multi-sited” ethnographies which, I think, it intended to account for ethnographic activities when the ethnographer moves from one setting to the next in an attempt to … do what?  I have not been convinced.  First, there is the danger that one is led back to the initial problem: what is a “site” that there can be several?  Second, there is the matter of the selection of the sites.  Does one make this selection on the sense that there is a population of sites from which one select a sample?  How else might one proceed?

Working with students this past academic year, planning various research projects, and continuing to think about webs/networks, polities, etc., has re-opened this question with some urgency.  At this moment, I am exploring the following in an expansion of Garfinkel as compounded by Latour.  The fundamental methodological principle is: trust the people to tell you what makes them make differences in their lives and that of others.  The people, too, are trying to figure ‘it’ out, and, in the process ‘constitute’ it.  All we have to do is follow them.  This, of course, is not easy since the constraints on their methods (getting their work acknowledged as relevant to the task in such a way that the task is accomplished) are not those under which we operate (getting work acknowledged as ‘social science research’).  So:

  1. start with a salient phenomenon in some population (cohort). That is, start with a local (national) topic of conversation among the population. The more contentious this conversation, the better for our purposes.
    1. NCLB, indigeneity, autism would be such phenomena (to mention ongoing work by Jill Koyama, Jeff Schiffer, Juliette de Wolfe). These are salient in the United States or Canada. They generate a lot of talk. And that talk is easy to find in many setting.
      1. Do not attempt to define, say, “autism” or “indigeneity.” The participants, in their talk might make it look as if it is an ‘it’. You can remain agnostic while accepting that the practices in which the participants engage are very real and produce concrete consequences.
      2. Do not attempt to define the setting either. Again, the people will tell you its boundaries and reach through their own practices.
    2. Postulating a web means that one can start anywhere convenient.
  2. The danger is to take this starting point as THE core point. To prevent this, it may be best to start with a setting “obviously” peripheral
  3. listen carefully for indexical sequences (e.g. “We are doing this against our better judgement because they make us do it.”)
    1. these sequences are going to be included within larger conversations and will include many indexes to the current conversation and cohort, as well as to other conversations and cohorts.
    2. again, the more contentious the conversation, the more likely it is that linked matters will be indexed.
    3. the indexical sequences need not be verbal though one can start with the verbal as it may be easiest to access
  4. follow the indexes to the next convenient setting/moment
  5. repeat until exhausted (or a year has passed—though the temporality of such a search needs also to be addressed).

More to come.

more on intentionality

One of the most puzzling aspect of facing for the first time G.H. Mead’s (and all other pragmatists’) consideration about meaning is what happens to “intentionality” when the emphasis is placed on the openness of what is said until the “third turn” when the interpretant kicks in and that which has been done is settled, at least for a time. Students understand the argument (thanks to “what time is it” illustration) but one at least will be upset and ask the question: “are you really discounting the intention of the first actor?” I have to say ‘yes’ to that, but this cannot be the end, if only because it does not quite satisfy the common sense of the student(s) who remain convinced that action is founded on intentions and that research should emphasize those, if only to preserve the autonomy of the individual, “agency.” Students may not realize the ideological grounding of the insistence on intentionality, but they do insist.

Once thinking about this, I also realized that another aspect of my teaching Mead, or Garfinkel, is my insistence that cultural patterns (the ensemble of a identifiable three turn sequence) can be oppressive on all the individual participants (culture disables). At that moment, I have re-introduced the individual as a separate entity. As Ray and I have written several times, the individual can be a “unit of concern” (1998: 217).

But, if this is so, then the individual is also a unit possibly suffering because of the gap between that which she intended and that which it is now publicly acknowledged has happened.

I tried to say this in Chapter 8 of Successful Failure but I never got the sense that this piece was successful. Even I, sometimes, have a hard time reading it. So it needs to be said more easily. The power of Mead’s analysis lies in his insistence that we can indeed talk about an ‘I’, that the ‘I’ refers to an experience even though it cannot be identified without doing the violence to it that Ray and I attribute to “culture.”

So, it is not that individuals do not have intentions, but that their intentions are not the primary motor of the constitution of an event so that it gets known as having happened. Society cannot be explained by intentions (or by learning, etc.). Interaction can produce acknowledged (canned) intentions, and one of the purpose of social analysis can be to distinguish between such labeled intentions and the always-to-remain mysterious ‘I’ that moved others to label the actor.

The acting ‘I’ is free.

on taming the ignorant powerful …

In the earlier post, I marveled at Oprah’s pedagogy … as an anthropologist interested in education. As such I am puzzled and need to figure out how the new skepticism about medical authority is actually performed, by whom and when. So I was fascinated by an editorial by Joel Stein of Time Magazine about “The Vaccination War.”

In an earlier post, I asked a question, with a tongue in my cheek: “how could we tame Oprah?” I did not specifying who ‘we’ are, on what grounds ‘we” should try to tame her, and whether taming Oprah (and others like her) is something that could be done.  After all, they are wonderfully extra-Vagant (as Boon, 1999, might put it) and likely to escape most forms of social control.

I leave the questions open for the moment in order to expand the puzzle triggered by a critique of the advice Oprah dispenses on matters like vaccination.  There is every evidence that, from the ‘official’ public health point of view, her shows can be dangerous, particularly when she discusses vaccination.  She may endanger the health of individual children not getting vaccinated, as well as the health of the public as these children get sick and may sicken others.  At least this is what us, sober headed experts in public health as driven by medical research, might say (and have said).  As a highly schooled expert myself, and someone who generally accepts what other experts tell me, I am uncomfortable at any challenge to my expertise, particularly when it comes from someone as powerful as Oprah.  But I am not writing her to complain.  I continue here to puzzle.

In the earlier post, I marveled at Oprah’s pedagogy (the way she formats the discussions) and at her use of a classic American formula where highly schooled experts are pitted against the common sense of the non-expert.  As a cultural anthropologist, I cheer at a particularly striking improvisation on an old theme.

But I am also an anthropologist interested in education.  As such I am puzzled and need to figure out how the new skepticism about medical authority is actually performed, by whom and when.  So I was fascinated by an editorial by Joel Stein of Time Magazine about “The Vaccination War” and how it played out in a “liberal, wealthy [couple] of L.A.” and their immediate network.  He assumed his new-born would be vaccinated, his wife said ‘No’.  So:

To try to be open-minded and stop our fighting, I went to a seminar about inoculation at Cassandra’s yoga center.  Along with about 50 other people, we paid $30 each to listen to Dr. Lauren Feder.

This Dr. Feder explained why inoculation is not necessary, and how not immunizing might possibly be healthier for the child.  I am tempted to write about this as a case of deliberate mis-education and induced ignorance among the prosperous and powerful.  I could also write it as a case of resistance among some of the powerful (the people who might appear in Larry David’s Curb your enthusiasm) against some other powerful people (health experts).  Unless of course it is just a case of mass hysteria.

Again, I do not want to complain, but the problem remains: “how are we to tame the mis-guided powerful?” (if we decided to do so).

“Educational research” has produced much that has documented the apparent ignorance of the poor and powerless, particularly as compared to the apparent knowledge of the prosperous and powerful.  This literature assumes that the latter know (more) and that they pass this knowledge on to their children (“cultural capital”).  But what if the prosperous also mis-educate their children, if not on matters relating to schooling at school-relevant moments (e.g. high stake exams), at least on a lot of other matters, and at other times?  And what if the prosperous’ success in school tests is not quite a reflection of what they end up “knowing”?  What if the prosperous, often, just pass (pretend, lie) at passing (school tests)?  There is some evidence that the children of the poor sometimes fail at tests because they refuse to do what it takes to pass.  We need to see if, in some case and for certain purposes, the children of the powerful succeed at the same tests because all they have done is do what it takes to pass, without learning in the sense of understanding or accepting the answers they gave on the tests.  When test-taking is done, then what they actually learned over the course of their schooling, or what they continue to educate themselves about as they grow older, may reveal itself as something else altogether than school-people might have expected.

Joel Stein, in the same column, says something very interesting and challenging to us school people about the source of his adult knowledge:

Even in the age of Google and Wikipedia, we still receive almost all of our information through our peers.  I believe in evolution not because I’ve read Darwin but because everyone I know things it’s true.

Now, that is a challenge for all educators, and for all researchers on education.

how to tame Oprah …

What sort of policies might be established to control the kind of systematic education that is not controlled by experts in pedagogy or curriculum? How are professional teachers to control people like Oprah Winfrey when they push what experts consider “mis-“education?

In the space of two days, I watched a PBS biography, of Benjamin Franklin and an journalistic discussion of Oprah Winfrey Show in Newsweek (June 8, 2009).  Of course, the scholars who discussed Franklin mentioned again and again his place in American history as one of the first and most powerful advocate and practitioner of self-education both through one’s own efforts and through the efforts of people like himself to teach in such a way as to make it easier for people to self-educate.  The journalists reporting on the Winfrey show emphasized the way she presents health issues with an emphasis on personal vs. expert knowledge.  Arguably, both Franklin and Winfrey belongs to the same American tradition that Franklin helped institutionalized.  Both establish their authority by calling on the common sense skepticism about the wisdom of legitimized authority.  It has been said that P. T. Barnum used similar rhetorical moves as he presented the displays for which he was famous as occasions to exercise the skepticism of the audience. One did not have to take Barnum at his word, but one should come in and check for oneself.  Winfrey uses the same argumentation in the statement she released to Newsweek when she was asked to respond to their story: “People are responsible for their actions.  The information presented on the show is … not an endorsement … My intention is for the viewers to … engage in a dialogue with their medical practitioners.”  In other words: “Do not believe me! Judge for yourself!”

Early in my career I would have stopped here with a quip like “only in America!” and possibly mentioned other famous current people who use similar forms. The symbolic successes of Sarah Palin can certainly be linked to the same broad cultural pattern; and so can the refusal to accept the usual narratives about U.S. history, or evolution; and so perhaps can much of what has made the Interned powerful as a tool for cultural production (education).  In the inner cities, the Bible Belt, and probably everywhere else as well, the call to trust common sense over expertise remains what it has been—and Hollywood is happy to profit from it.  As Franklin said of his Almanac: “I endeavored to make it both entertaining and useful and … I reaped considerable profit from it” (as quoted in Cremin, 1970: 374).

But today, I will not stop with an altogether admiring wonder at American quirks.  I am involved in an academic struggle with the definition of what is to count as educational (school reform) policy in the United States and, particularly, with the search for a method to control what experts have determined should be taught by American schools so that it is learned by all American children (so that no child, indeed, is left behind).  I have argued that this attempt is unlikely to work if it focuses solely on schools.  Actually I am not even sure that going beyond schooling to understand education would be enough.  This is where Winfrey comes in.  Provocatively, how might “we,” expert scientists from schools of education, tame Winfrey and come to control her health education curriculum?  Should “we”? And who are the “we” who claim the right to control this curriculum?

And so, I was reminded again of Rancière and the argument that education cannot be tamed.  I thank Dr. Linda Lin for thinking of the paradigm of the wild/domesticated/tamed as best capturing Rancière’s argument as it must be generalized.  Education cannot be tamed and all the efforts to tame it are in vain—and this is a very good thing for the production of new cultural forms.

But that leaves those of us who are quite sure of our expertise with a dilemma. How do we reach the settings where licensed teachers do not have direct authority, from families to the media, from street corners to churches or mosques? How do we tame Oprah?


Cremin, Lawrence American education: The Colonial Experience.  New York: Harper & Row. 1970